Dear Brittney and Tharunka Team
I wanted to firstly congratulate you on the Semester 1 Tharunka that so directly and relevantly highlighted the issues of mental health and students with disabilities at UNSW. In particular, the article by Annabel Green and Annabelle Thorne was revealing (“Mental Health at UNSW – Can More Be Done?”). I also note that the most recent Tharunka continued the discussion in an article by Stella Ladikos that highlighted mental health issues on campus.
From May 2017 I have taken up the role of Director – Student Life reporting to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Merlin Crossley. Within my broad portfolio of student services is the responsibility for the health, safety and wellbeing of UNSW students, and both the UNSW Health Service, and Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), sit within that portfolio. In my first few weeks in this job, I have started to understand the breadth and depth of the “conundrum” that is student mental health at UNSW. In fact, when overlayed across the Australian higher education landscape, it might better be described as an epidemic.
And further abroad, the situation seems to be even more chronic. I read an article last month that said that university student leaders in the US have become so concerned about the student mental health crisis that they have sent a large petition to 20 top universities (including Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and MIT) requesting that new ways of dealing with student mental health are explored. The petition comes on the back of the horrific statistics that seven students have died this year in those institutions from suicide and the wait time for mental health services is measured in weeks, not days. Additionally, last year, when I met with the President and Vice-Chancellor from Arizona State University, Professor Michael Crow, he distressingly told me that at ASU, on average, eight students attempt suicide annually.
Our own Vice-Chancellor Professor Jacobs and Professor Crossley were made aware just this month by the UNSW Student Leadership Group (Arc@UNSW Chair Edward Bartolo, SRC President Aislinn Stein-Magee and PGC President Jane Aslanidis) that students are keen to see an over-arching plan to deal with student mental health at UNSW. The concern is that unless we move quickly to address the issue, the consequences could look more like those outlined by our friend universities in the US.
Whilst the problem is significant, UNSW has some expert advice and resources to access in addressing the issue, and developing a student mental health plan. I have already discussed with Professor Phillip Mitchell, Head, School of Psychiatry, that it would be good to access some of his expert team in running some workshops to not only look at sizing the problem at UNSW but also to explore models to better address student mental health. Importantly, we will address the issue by involving student consultation at the earliest stage of the planning.
It is necessary to emphasise that this is a multi-dimensional problem that will require a multi-layered approach. I don’t believe it is possible to continue with the current model of service delivery if we are going to address the issue at scale. However, any solutions should emerge from our targeted workshops and through extensive consultation to help to develop a future plan. There is clearly a long road to haul and no panacea for university student mental health problems, but we need an over-arching plan to get better at helping students and it needs to start now.
Director UNSW Student Life